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On-Demand Continuing Education: Fast-Tracking Quality Programs

Corporations today are desperate for programming that meets immediate learning needs and can be delivered quickly. It’s up to institutions to ensure they can create and deliver programs that meet those needs in a timely fashion.

In today’s competitive and rapidly changing landscape of adult learning; continuing education institutions must constantly strategize creative ways to bring new programs into existence while keeping costs and delivery times to a minimum. It’s no secret that certificate programs are the engines of creativity and innovation that drive enrollments, build new revenue streams, and foster institutional growth. Unlike stand-alone or “one-off” courses, specialized programs that offer focused study in a coherent body of knowledge—leading to the attainment of a specified set of learning objectives with certification or credentialing outcomes—have a far greater likelihood to increase seat counts by attracting busy people who need “on-demand” content taught by leading industry practitioners.

The mandate for new, “just in time” programming presents inherent challenges in the often slow-moving bureaucracy that is higher education. For academic leaders to be successful and stay ahead of the curve they must respond adeptly to emerging trends, governmental needs and changing market demands. After all, adult education is a climate where upwardly mobile business professionals are seeking immediate educational opportunities to advance or change careers, gain credentialing, or learn specific knowledge. They know what they want, and they want it now!

As an academic leader, your job is to deliver the goods by creating program content that supports emerging new professions, utilizes sound instructional design, assessment and technology strategies, offers a competitive edge, and, not least of all, assures fiscally viability and profitability.

If this sounds daunting, that’s because it is! The arduous but crucial processes of new program development—opportunity recognition, market researching and planning, conceptual modeling and design, delivery and implementation—requires careful consideration and often involves working cross-departmentally with functional teams. The good news is that the new program development need not be bogged down by external or internal factors.

Depending on the complexity of the program—what players are involved, how much research effort—a new sequence can be rolled out in short order. One example of academic leaders coming together to meet market demand occurred several years ago at UC Berkeley Extension during the “eCommerce” boom when people were desperate for technical knowledge and skills to build sophisticated e-platforms and administer complex business processes. In just four months, a complete 240-hour Certificate Program was created with engineering and business leadership and cross-pollination. This fast-track effort succeeded because of the simple reason that a “low hanging fruit” of an opportunity was recognized and acted on collaboratively, without regard for individual accomplishment, skepticism or failure. Such teamwork and vision can trump bureaucracy any day.

So what is the optimal solution to effective new program development?

It begins with a “discovery” or “opportunity” phase; data-driven research to back up the viability of a proposal. At the same time, ideas are solicited from faculty, advisory board members, colleagues and students. Market research and an environmental scan or “SWOT” analysis is conducted; who is the competition, what are the labor trends and employment projections, how much are salaries? Of course, all of this takes time on top of regular duties, but the input/output is necessary to understand if there is growth in the overall market, and if there’s a niche for your program to exploit.

The next stage, depending on the length and complexity of the program, involves recruiting and convening an Advisory Board to help steer curriculum direction. Program design and development can only proceed after these steps, which can take months. Hopefully, by then, the momentum is not lost!

How can such a belabored and protracted process be expedited? If time to market is an issue, then one way is to scale down an ambitious launch by designing a shorter sequence. I recently opted for this with a new program in Professional Communication that my Advisory Board recommended be rolled out at the highest level of certificate at our institution. After considering all the variables, I distilled the conceptual model from over 200 hours to 90 total hours. This was ideal for our highly-motivated but short-on-time students who now are able to finish the accelerated program in less than one year. With a much shorter program on the drawing board, final approval also now rested internally and not dependent on the associated campus department, so the process was streamlined by several months.

UC Berkeley Extension has taken a long, hard look at process improvements in new program development, coming up with workable solutions to fast-track programs by removing barriers to efficient production, including discussing proposals at regular weekly meetings instead of monthly meetings; scheduling ad hoc consult meetings as needed; bundling similar processes together; recruiting interns or volunteers to assist with market research; scheduling dedicated time for Program Directors to work on new development; and developing closer ties with campus departments in a relationship building effort to recruit faculty advisors more quickly.

Continuing education institutions must be agile, flexible and au courant. Bringing leading-edge programs to market in a timely fashion requires knowing how to operate smartly with limited time and resources. Not only is it necessary from an educational and competitive standpoint, but it is also a financial imperative, especially gearing up for the corporate training market or in areas of technology that can become outdated in a year. If you’re able to maneuver through the labyrinth of bureaucracy to put the necessary pieces in place, then chances are your new program will meet with success in the short—and long—run.

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